Kayla Preisler closed her eyes and Courtlynn Pulcini touched her fingers to her classmate’s lids, gently palpating the area.
What might she possibly find?
“She’s checking for edema, pain, tenderness, nodules and masses,” said associate professor Diana Easton, the director of the physician assistant program at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre.
As part of their training, the students recently gave each other all sorts of tests, from audiology screening to eye exams.
“Read the smallest line,” Pulcini directed Preisler, 24, of Chambersburg.
“Nine, seven, two, three, eight, six,” Preisler said, receiving a report of 20/25 vision for visual acuity.
“Now, can you tell me the colors?” Pulcini asked, pointing to a series of dots.
“Blue, green, red, yellow,” Preisler responded.
“I’m just verifying that you have color vision,” said Pulcini, 22, of Bath.
Researchers predict a worsening shortfall of primary-care physicians in the United States, due to the health-care needs of a growing population, the Affordable Care Act making more people eligible for insurance, and more doctors becoming specialists.
But one way to bridge the gap is to have physician assistants provide physical examinations, diagnose illnesses and develop treatment plans. They are certified to do all that, as well as order and interpret lab tests and assist in surgeries, all while working under the supervision of a physician.
“I love deliveries. They’re amazing,” said Pulcini, who, after shadowing an obstetrician found herself gravitating toward that field — though she likes pediatrics as well.
During King’s College’s celebration of Physician Assistant Week earlier this month, the students gave osteoporosis screenings at a community health fair and checked blood pressure on fellow students — most of whom had good systolic and diastolic numbers.
Preisler admitted she had thought there would be higher blood pressure numbers among the student body.
“I was surprised,” she said. “You would have thought they’d be under a lot of stress because of (mid-term) exams.”
As she prepared to give eye exams to fellow students, Chelsea Hamershock, 21, of Nazareth said a physician assistant cared for her after she suffered a sports-related shoulder injury. “A surgeon operated on me,” Hamershock said, “but the physician assistant spent a lot of time with me charting my recovery.”
“Physician assistants get to know their patients on a personal level,” Preisler said, citing a factor many of her fellow students say nudged them away from medical school and onto their chosen career path.
Another reason is that physicians assistants typically enter the field after devoting only five or six post-high-school years to a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree as opposed to spending four years in college, four years in medical school and three years as a resident physician.
“We have more flexibility,” Preisler added. “We can change fields.”
That’s true, Easton said. A physician’s assistant who wanted to switch from, for example, orthopedics to psychiatry or any other field simply would have to find a new job, working under the supervision of another physician who had confidence in the assistant’s abilities.
And because they expect they won’t have to concern themselves with actually running a medical practice,many of the future physician assistants believe they will be better able to balance their careers with family life.
“It’s more in line with the lifestyle I want to have, with the family man I want to be,” said Jesse Balls, 26, of Pocatello, Idaho. “I want to provide for my family, and I want to have time to spend with them, too.”
The physician assistant program at King’s is selective, Easton said, explaining that out of close to 900 applicants this year, 60 were accepted into the program, 30 as undergrads and 30 as graduate students. Each year the program graduates 60 students.
Sometimes people enter the program after already working in the health-care field.
“I wanted to be more involved in my patients’ care,” Erika Baranowski, 23, of Oxford, Conn., said, explaining why she wanted to become a P.A. after working as a registered dietitian.